American makes her mark in the temple of pain: Susan Noble overcame many severe barriers to join an ascetic Japanese order, writes Terry McCarthy

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The Independent Online
WHEN Susan Noble decided her karma was to become a Buddhist nun in the rigorous Shingon sect in Japan she was told by a Japanese friend already in the order: 'Go until you drop. There is no quitting.' No one else thought she could make it through the demanding initiation rituals.

That was six years ago, and, far from quitting, she is now in line to become one of the first foreigners to be appointed head of a Japanese Buddhist temple: the Daifukuji temple in Koryo, 230 miles from Tokyo. But the obstacles she has had to overcome to fulfil her karma make the trade barriers that Western businessmen in Japan complain about seem puny.

Apart from the standard suspicion of foreigners, she has been through 100 days of ascetic endurance that approached self-inflicted torture, the initial resistance of an 89- year-old nun who is her only living companion in the temple and a host of fretful 'spirits' - ghosts - who have inhabited the temple for some time and whom she is in the process of exorcising or propitiating. These spirits she takes very seriously: some cause objects to fall off shelves, others invade her dreams.

Ms Noble, 36, is originally from Oregon in the US. She speaks Japanese and English in gentle, smiling tones, and appears quite at ease with her flowing temple robes and shaved head.

She had been studying Zen Buddhism until she came in contact with the Shingon sect, which appealed to her as less elitist and more open to ordinary people.

Founded in the 9th century by the Japanese monk, Kobo Daishi, after a visit to China, the Shingon tradition relies more on chanting and other temple rituals, rather than the withdrawn, silent meditation of Zen.

However it took Ms Noble two years of intense lobbying and knocking on doors before she was even admitted to study as a novice in the order's headquarters on Mount Koya in Nara prefecture.

The initiation process has been made so gruelling that it is thought a novice cannot survive on his or her own willpower unless special 'empowerment' is received from the Buddha.

The climax is a period of 100 days of complete isolation, during which the initiates survive on iron rations and four hours of sleep a day. They perform thousands of prostrations, recite sutras, and must remain seated on their heels with their legs bent double under them for 12 to 15 hours a day. 'My biggest struggle was simply with the pain,' said Ms Noble. They also repeatedly perform the fire ceremony, a ritual burning of wood and incense.

Along with her 15 Japanese classmates she was on notice that if she balked once she would be immediately thrown out. No other Westerner had attempted the initiation. 'Some bets were made on how long I would last. Talk about getting nationalist ire raised.' She graduated successfully; five others dropped out along the way.

She was then assigned to the Daifukuji temple, which had been presided over by the lone priestess, Tairyu Sato, now 89, for nearly half a century. The previous year Ms Sato's lay woman companion of 22 years had died. When Ms Noble arrived at Daifukuji, however, she found the old priestess had kept the urn of her friend's ashes and held regular conversations with her departed spirit.

'I told her the urn should be given a proper burial in a cemetery. She was reluctant. And when I brought a friend down to help me, things started falling off shelves, and making noises at night.'

There are still many unhappy spirits in the temple grounds whom Ms Noble has not yet placated. Some time in the last 100 years the temple fell into disuse and gravestones were taken to be used as building blocks.

One of her first decisions after she arrived was to bring in a geomancer to locate the gravestones and persuade the locals to return them to the temple as an act of rehabilitation.

'If the stones could speak, theirs would probably be a very sad story. Bad karmic history.' To sceptical comments along the lines of: 'You don't really believe all this stuff?' she has a simple response: 'Unless you are very sure, it is wise not to scoff.'

(Photograph omitted)